Once upon a time in a league far, far away in the memory of many, when something happened to the Boston Celtics the way they were crushed on the boards in their 106-102 Game 1 playoff loss to the Bulls, you know what would be next.
If it were the Detroit Pistons, their goon squad would show up. Rick Mahorn or Dennis Rodman taking you out of the air on a drive, Bill Laimbeer tripping you going down the steps to the locker room. Or maybe if it were the Knicks, Anthony Mason or John Starks with a push in the back, a kick in the groin. OK, maybe Draymond Green, too. Yes, there still are some good ‘ol days.
Of course, that’s the exception, and that sort of stuff isn’t tolerated in the NBA anymore.
But when the Bulls play the Celtics Tuesday in Game 2 in suddenly a backs-to-the-wall game for Boston, perhaps the Bulls better be watching their backs. Yes, Jimmy Butler’s 30 points, 15 in the fourth quarter, were crucial in the Game 1 win. And Bobby Portis’ 19 points and nine rebounds were welcome. But it was Robin Lopez with 14 points and 11 rebounds, nine offensive, that most frustrated the Celtics. Around the concern for grieving teammate Isaiah Thomas, the Celtics after Game 1 all were talking about the Bulls’ 53-36 rebounding lead and how that much change in Game 2.
It’s on? Will the gloves come off?
They’re not supposed to in the NBA; of course, the only Bull this season who did get into a fist fight—of sorts--was Lopez, suspended a game for his wild roundhouse right against Serge Ibaka. Lopez, of course, is known as a fighter, though primarily with team mascots. Though he is fascinated with comic books and action heroes. A modern era NBA avenger?
Lopez in Game 1 was the hulk that angered the Celtics. They’re committed to changing that and saving their series in Game 2. After all, they’re the guys who are green.
Will they? Can they?
“For sure (they’ll focus on rebounding),” Lopez acknowledged at Bulls practice Monday. “They have a lot of really physical players, a lot of really smart players and they are so good at playing as a unit. I know they are all going to be focused in on creating some kind of…making it more difficult for us to get those offensive rebounds.”
Some kind of what? Mayhem?
You’re not likely to see it in the NBA anymore, and it’s difficult to imagine with this Celtics team that features—while they are good—probably the smallest and lightest backcourt in the league. Thomas is listed at 5-9 (sure) and 185 pounds and Avery Bradley at 6-3 and 180. Not sure about that, either. Of course, Rajon Rondo isn’t playing fullback for anyone, either.
Rebounding, as Pat Riley famously said, is rings. It’s doubtful either of these teams is quite playing for that yet. But it’s also hard work, effort, physical play and perhaps a little intimidation.
The Celtics compete seriously, but they are a small team.
In fact, the Celtics starters average about 6-5 compared to 6-7 for the Bulls starters. The Celtics so called big men are perimeter oriented Al Horford and slender Amir Johnson.
The Bulls dominated them on the boards the first three games the teams played this season, averaging 16 more rebounds per game. The Bulls even got 10 more in the game they lost in Boston in November. Then after the Taj Gibson trade, the Bulls had a huge meltdown and 26 first half points in being blown out by the Celtics March 12. That was the team’s big turnaround moment with Rondo and Nikola Mirotic back in the lineup and the rotation tightened. The Celtics outrebounded the Bulls by 11 in that game.
But with Butler and Rondo hitting the boards and Portis coming hard off the bench, the Bulls saved the game Sunday with their rebounding. It was especially true in the first quarter with the emotion rippling through the building and Thomas scoring 13 points. It was Lopez with five offensive rebounds and 10 points that kept the Bulls within five points after one quarter. He saved what could have been another blowout.
“Rolo is huge,” said Butler, using Lopez’ team nickname. “He does what you ask him to do, goes out there and hustles, shoots the ball when he’s open, rebounds, guards, and he never complains; stays in as many games as he can until he gets suspended in Toronto for swinging at people. If we are outrebounding teams like that we are always going to give ourselves a chance to win.
It figures Lopez is going to have plenty of work to do Tuesday with likely the largest target on his back.
Of course, Butler is the Bulls main scorer. And the Celtics likely won’t leave Portis available so often. Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said he expects Nikola Mirotic to bounce back after shooting one of nine in Game 1 and zero for five on threes.
“I know Niko is going to come back and battle,” said Hoiberg, who added he’ll leave the lineup the same. “I know he had some really good defensive possessions for us. Just little things that may not show up in the stat sheet, but being in the right spot, forcing the team to make extra passes. I thought Niko did battle on the defensive end and did make contributions even though his offense wasn’t going; everybody has confidence in Niko, including Niko. Just a matter of knocking down the shots when they come.”
But Hoiberg also stayed with the hot shooter in Portis over Mirotic late in the game. The Bulls were loose with the ball again for 19 turnovers, which usually is fatal against Boston. The Bulls were eight of 25 on threes after missing their first 11 straight. And the Bulls almost gave away a nine-point lead in the last 50 seconds being trapped. They’ll have to watch for that.
Though Butler says no one among the Bulls is satisfied to have just wrested away technical home court advantage with the win.
When they do they may well be greeted by Celtics with primitive intentions. The Bulls have someone with a primitive hair style who’ll be ready.
“You have to keep the (offensive rebounding) mentality,” said Lopez. “Sometimes the ball is not going to bounce your way. Just by going to the bucket like that, putting it on the line for your teammates, maybe it bounces to them. My thought process doesn’t change from game to game. I go out there and try to help my teammates. I try to (have) some effect on the defensive end positively and let everything else flow from there.
“A lot of offensive rebounding is a lot of desire,” explains Lopez, “a little bit positioning. Obviously, picking and choosing when to go (to the boards) with a team as great in transition as Boston.”
Look, this isn’t Rodman rebounding or Bill Russell, Wes Unseld or even Johnny Kerr. Lopez averaged 6.4 rebounds this season, though almost half on the offensive boards. He’s not exceptionally quick to the ball, but he’s forceful and relentless. His composed off court demeanor belies the heart of a fierce defensive competitor.
“I don’t know if I ever said I’m going to get a lot of offensive rebounds,” said Lopez. “As far as I can remember that’s been something I’ve done. I’m not sure how that happened. That’s a way to help my teammates, so I’m happy doing it.”
Brook shot; Robin got the ball so he could shoot again.
“Since we lost Taj we haven’t rebounded as well,” Lopez admitted about his favored front court mate. “But I think we did a great job (Sunday) of rebounding as a team. That’s something we need to continue with. There’s going to be a response from Boston, so it’s something we need to be consistent with and very detailed with. Go out there and try to play with a level head whether good or bad happens; obviously it’s an emotional, physical game; it’s a fun game. There are times when things start rolling you are going to start feeling a kind of way.”
So what way?
“’Swept up’ is the perfect phrase to summarize how I feel,” Lopez said.
Sweeping up the floor with someone? Swept up in the mayhem? No, no one said sweep. This projects as a long series. Lopez knows he, especially, better be aware and prepared Tuesday. They’re coming. By land; to see. To land that metaphorical punch. The Bulls expect to see it coming. Round two?